While the majority of American workers are meeting the call to return to the office with less than resounding enthusiasm, Black women are near-unanimous in their desire to remain remote or switch to a hybrid model. This reality is thanks in part to the reprieve they’ve experienced from microaggressions and harassment while working from home. Of course, returning to the office shouldn’t require Black women to sacrifice their mental health. Instead, Tara Jaye Frank, equity strategist and author of The Waymakers (May 2022), sees an opportunity for executives to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their organizations and create environments that encourage everyone to reach their full potential, thus retaining talent and boosting their companies’ success.
Workers have any number of reasons for not wanting to return to the office: a better work-life balance, flexibility in their schedules, increased productivity from fewer distractions and a greater ability to focus, decreased anxiety, a stronger sense of safety, and so on. But for Black women specifically, working remotely can mean fewer opportunities for co-workers to display microaggressions or be blatantly racist. As Dr. Ella Washington of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University explained to Bloomberg, office chit-chat also often leads to a sense of exclusion where Black women are not part of the conversation. Working remotely alleviates that discomfort. Remote work also helps with the crasser microaggressions: Dr. Courtney McCluney of Cornell University, for example, told the New York Times that working from home meant that for the first time in her career no one made insensitive remarks about her hair or tried to touch it.
If that’s not bad enough, microaggressions often take a dig at ideas and accomplishments as well. Tara Jaye Frank explained to TriplePundit how ideas offered by Black women are more likely to be dismissed and their schooling and degrees are often challenged as less valuable. As a result, they are asked to prove themselves over and over by providing more evidence of their expertise. She explained that these types of microaggressions are the result of society’s perception of leadership as a white and male role, so those that don’t fit this mold are held to higher standards and denied the responsibilities they seek.
After spending 21 years in corporate America — and achieving an executive position at the age of 29 — Frank is fully aware of the feelings of isolation that come with being a Black woman in business. She also described the burden of responsibility, as well as the sense of privilege, that comes with being expected to represent the Black community in the workplace. All of this pressure, along with the extra scrutiny in the form of microaggressions and harrassment, can make Black women feel like they have to be perfect. Frank explained how this has the unfortunate side effect of discouraging them from making risky moves or suggesting ideas outside of the norm, even though those ideas are exactly what makes DEI so valuable to business outcomes.
The compound effect of all of this also drastically limits how many Black women are able to step into leadership roles. In fact, the number of women of color drops at each level of management in corporate America. That’s where Frank intends for her book to help. She described the title as a reference to her audience: “people who make a way for those that have been left behind.” Inspired by her work with high-level executives, she is confident that those in leadership positions want to do the right thing, and she is eager to show them how. “Leaders don’t show up looking to harm people,” she said. “This is about building the capacity to be more equitable.”
While the dismal level of diversity at the C-suite level suggests that corporate America has failed miserably when it comes to DEI, Frank maintains that change is possible with the right action plan. “It is one thing to claim a vision,” she said, adding that leaders have to be willing to make the decisions and implement the measures that will bring it into existence. They have to take accountability for defining goals and meeting them — and also determining whether their companies’ culture is getting in the way of deploying an effective DEI strategy in the first place.
In the next article of this two-part series, Frank shares how companies can move forward on securing a culture that respects diversity and inclusion, including a commitment to taking employees’ mental health seriously.
Image credit: Brandy Kennedy via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.